A Strange Story, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter 79.

That interview is over! Again I am banished from Lilian’s room; the agitation, the joy of that meeting has overstrained her enfeebled nerves. Convulsive tremblings of the whole frame, accompanied with vehement sobs, succeeded our brief interchange of sweet and bitter thoughts. Faber, in tearing me from her side, imperiously and sternly warned me that the sole chance yet left of preserving her life was in the merciful suspense of the emotions that my presence excited. He and Amy resumed their place in her chamber. Even her mother shared my sentence of banishment. So Mrs. Ashleigh and I sat facing each other in the room below; over me a leaden stupor had fallen, and I heard, as a voice from afar or in a dream, the mother’s murmured wailings,

“She will die! she will die! Her eyes have the same heavenly look as my Gilbert’s on the day on which his closed forever. Her very words are his last words — ‘Forgive me all my faults to you.’ She will die! she will die!”

Hours thus passed away. At length Faber entered the room; he spoke first to Mrs. Ashleigh — meaningless soothings, familiar to the lips of all who pass from the chamber of the dying to the presence of mourners, and know that it is a falsehood to say “hope,” and a mockery as yet, to say, “endure.”

But he led her away to her own room, docile as a wearied child led to sleep, stayed with her some time, and then returned to me, pressing me to his breast father-like.

“No hope! no hope!” said I, recoiling from his embrace. “You are silent. Speak! speak! Let me know the worst.”

“I have a hope, yet I scarcely dare to bid you share it; for it grows rather out of my heart as man than my experience as physician. I cannot think that her soul would be now so reconciled to earth, so fondly, so earnestly, cling to this mortal life, if it were about to be summoned away. You know how commonly even the sufferers who have dreaded death the most become calmly resigned to its coming, when death visibly reveals itself out from the shadows in which its shape has been guessed and not seen. As it is a bad sign for life when the patient has lost all will to live on, so there is hope while the patient, yet young and with no perceptible breach in the great centres of life (however violently their forts may be stormed), has still intense faith in recovery, perhaps drawn (who can say?) from the whispers conveyed from above to the soul.

“I cannot bring myself to think that all the uses for which a reason, always so lovely even in its errors, has been restored, are yet fulfilled. It seems to me as if your union, as yet so imperfect, has still for its end that holy life on earth by which two mortal beings strengthen each other for a sphere of existence to which this is the spiritual ladder. Through yourself I have hope yet for her. Gifted with powers that rank you high in the manifold orders of man — thoughtful, laborious, and brave; with a heart that makes intellect vibrate to every fine touch of humanity; in error itself, conscientious; in delusion, still eager for truth; in anger, forgiving; in wrong, seeking how to repair; and, best of all, strong in a love which the mean would have shrunk to defend from the fangs of the slanderer — a love, raising passion itself out of the realm of the senses, made sublime by the sorrows that tried its devotion — with all these noble proofs in yourself of a being not meant to end here, your life has stopped short in its uses, your mind itself has been drifted, a bark without rudder or pilot, over seas without shore, under skies without stars. And wherefore? Because the mind you so haughtily vaunted has refused its companion and teacher in Soul.

“And therefore, through you, I hope that she will be spared yet to live on; she, in whom soul has been led dimly astray, by unheeding the checks and the definite goals which the mind is ordained to prescribe to its wanderings while here; the mind taking thoughts from the actual and visible world, and the soul but vague glimpses and hints from the instinct of its ultimate heritage. Each of you two seems to me as yet incomplete, and your destinies yet uncompleted. Through the bonds of the heart, through the trials of time, ye have both to consummate your marriage. I do not — believe me — I do not say this in the fanciful wisdom of allegory and type, save that, wherever deeply examined, allegory and type run through all the most commonplace phases of outward and material life. I hope, then, that she may yet be spared to you; hope it, not from my skill as physician, but my inward belief as a Christian. To perfect your own being and end, ‘Ye will need one another!’”

I started — the very words that Lilian had heard in her vision!

“But,” resumed Faber, “how can I presume to trace the numberless links of effect up to the First Cause, far off — oh; far off — out of the scope of my reason. I leave that to philosophers, who would laugh my meek hope to scorn. Possibly, probably, where I, whose calling has been but to save flesh from the worm, deem that the life of your Lilian is needed yet, to develop and train your own convictions of soul, Heaven in its wisdom may see that her death would instruct you far more than her life. I have said, Be prepared for either — wisdom through joy, or wisdom through grief. Enough that, looking only through the mechanism by which this moral world is impelled and improved, you know that cruelty is impossible to wisdom. Even a man, or man’s law, is never wise but when merciful. But mercy has general conditions; and that which is mercy to the myriads may seem hard to the one, and that which seems hard to the one in the pang of a moment may be mercy when viewed by the eye that looks on through eternity.”

And from all this discourse — of which I now, at calm distance of time, recall every word — my human, loving heart bore away for the moment but this sentence, “Ye will need one another;” so that I cried out, “Life, life, life! Is there no hope for her life? Have you no hope as physician? I am a physician, too; I will see her. I will judge. I will not be banished from my post.”

“Judge, then, as physician, and let the responsibility rest with you. At this moment, all convulsion, all struggle, has ceased; the frame is at rest. Look on her, and perhaps only the physician’s eye could distinguish her state from death. It is not sleep, it is not trance, it is not the dooming coma from which there is no awaking. Shall I call it by the name received in our schools? Is it the catalepsy in which life is suspended, but consciousness acute? She is motionless, rigid; it is but with a strain of my own sense that I know that the breath still breathes, and the heart still beats. But I am convinced that though she can neither speak, nor stir, nor give sign, she is fully, sensitively conscious of all that passes around her. She is like those who have seen the very coffin carried into their chamber, and been unable to cry out, ‘Do not bury me alive!’ Judge then for yourself, with this intense consciousness and this impotence to evince it, what might be the effect of your presence — first an agony of despair, and then the complete extinction of life!”

“I have known but one such case — a mother whose heart was wrapped up in a suffering infant. She had lain for two days and two nights, still, as if in her shroud. All save myself said, ‘Life is gone.’ I said, ‘Life still is there.’ They brought in the infant, to try what effect its presence would produce; then her lips moved, and the hands crossed upon her bosom trembled.”

“And the result?” exclaimed Faber, eagerly. “If the result of your experience sanction your presence, come; the sight of the babe rekindled life?”

“No; extinguished its last spark! I will not enter Lilian’s room. I will go away — away from the house itself. That acute consciousness! I know it well! She may even hear me move in the room below, hear me speak at this moment. Go back to her, go back! But if hers be the state which I have known in another, which may be yet more familiar to persons of far ampler experience than mine, there is no immediate danger of death. The state will last through today, through to-night, perhaps for days to come. Is it so?”

“I believe that for at least twelve hours there will be no change in her state. I believe also that if she recover from it, calm and refreshed, as from a sleep, the danger of death will have passed away.”

“And for twelve hours my presence would be hurtful?”

“Rather say fatal, if my diagnosis be right.”

I wrung my friend’s hand, and we parted.

Oh, to lose her now! — now that her love and her reason had both returned, each more vivid than before! Futile, indeed, might be Margrave’s boasted secret; but at least in that secret was hope. In recognized science I saw only despair.

And at that thought all dread of this mysterious visitor vanished — all anxiety to question more of his attributes or his history. His life itself became to me dear and precious. What if it should fail me in the steps of the process, whatever that was, by which the life of my Lilian might be saved!

The shades of evening were now closing in. I remembered that I had left Margrave without even food for many hours. I stole round to the back of the house, filled a basket with elements more generous than those of the former day; extracted fresh drugs from my stores, and, thus laden, hurried back to the hut. I found Margrave in the room below, seated on his mysterious coffer, leaning his face on his hand. When I entered, he looked up, and said —

“You have neglected me. My strength is waning. Give me more of the cordial, for we have work before us to-night, and I need support.”

He took for granted my assent to his wild experiment; and he was right.

I administered the cordial. I placed food before him, and this time he did not eat with repugnance. I poured out wine, and he drank it sparingly, but with ready compliance, saying, “In perfect health, I looked upon wine as poison; now it is like a foretaste of the glorious elixir.”

After he had thus recruited himself, he seemed to acquire an energy that startlingly contrasted his languor the day before; the effort of breathing was scarcely perceptible; the colour came back to his cheeks; his bended frame rose elastic and erect.

“If I understood you rightly,” said I, “the experiment you ask me to aid can be accomplished in a single night?”

“In a single night — this night.”

“Command me. Why not begin at once? What apparatus or chemical agencies do you need?”

“Ah!” said Margrave, “formerly, how I was misled! Formerly, how my conjectures blundered! I thought, when I asked you to give a month to the experiment I wish to make, that I should need the subtlest skill of the chemist. I then believed, with Van Helmont, that the principle of life is a gas, and that the secret was but in the mode by which the gas might be rightly administered. But now all that I need is contained in this coffer, save one very simple material — fuel sufficient for a steady fire for six hours. I see even that is at hand, piled up in your outhouse. And now for the substance itself — to that you must guide me.”

“Explain.”

“Near this very spot is there not gold — in mines yet undiscovered? — and gold of the purest metal?”

“There is. What then? Do you, with the alchemists, blend in one discovery gold and life?”

“No. But it is only where the chemistry of earth or of man produces gold, that the substance from which the great pabulum of life is extracted by ferment can be found. Possibly, in the attempts at that transmutation of metals, which I think your own great chemist, Sir Humphry Davy, allowed might be possible, but held not to be worth the cost of the process — possibly, in those attempts, some scanty grains of this substance were found by the alchemists, in the crucible, with grains of the metal as niggardly yielded by pitiful mimicry of Nature’s stupendous laboratory; and from such grains enough of the essence might, perhaps, have been drawn forth, to add a few years of existence to some feeble graybeard — granting, what rests on no proofs, that some of the alchemists reached an age rarely given to man. But it is not in the miserly crucible, it is in the matrix of Nature herself, that we must seek in prolific abundance Nature’s grand principle — life. As the loadstone is rife with the magnetic virtue, as amber contains the electric, so in this substance, to which we yet want a name, is found the bright life-giving fluid. In the old goldmines of Asia and Europe the substance exists, but can rarely be met with. The soil for its nutriment may there be well-nigh exhausted. It is here, where Nature herself is all vital with youth, that the nutriment of youth must be sought. Near this spot is gold; guide me to it.”

“You cannot come with me. The place which I know as auriferous is some miles distant, the way rugged. You can not walk to it. It is true I have horses, but —”

“Do you think I have come this distance and not foreseen and forestalled all that I want for my object? Trouble your self not with conjectures how I can arrive at the place. I have provided the means to arrive at and leave it. My litter and its bearers are in reach of my call. Give me your arm to the rising ground, fifty yards from your door.”

I obeyed mechanically, stifling all surprise. I had made my resolve, and admitted no thought that could shake it. When we reached the summit of the grassy hillock, which sloped from the road that led to the seaport, Margrave, after pausing to recover breath, lifted up his voice, in a key, not loud, but shrill and slow and prolonged, half cry and half chant, like the nighthawk’s. Through the air — so limpid and still, bringing near far objects, far sounds — the voice pierced its way, artfully pausing, till wave after wave of the atmosphere bore and transmitted it on.

In a few minutes the call seemed reechoed, so exactly, so cheerily, that for the moment I thought that the note was the mimicry of the shy mocking Lyre–Bird, which mimics so merrily all that it hears in its coverts, from the whir of the locust to the howl of the wild dog.

“What king,” said the mystical charmer, and as he spoke he carelessly rested his hand on my shoulder, so that I trembled to feel that this dread son of Nature, Godless and soulless, who had been — and, my heart whispered, who still could be-my bane and mind-darkener, leaned upon me for support, as the spoilt younger-born on his brother — “what king,” said this cynical mocker, with his beautiful boyish face — “what king in your civilized Europe has the sway of a chief of the East? What link is so strong between mortal and mortal, as that between lord and slave? I transport yon poor fools from the land of their birth; they preserve here their old habits — obedience and awe. They would wait till they starved in the solitude — wait to hearken and answer my call. And I, who thus rule them, or charm them — I use and despise them. They know that, and yet serve me! Between you and me, my philosopher, there is but one thing worth living for — life for oneself.”

Is it age, is it youth, that thus shocks all my sense, in my solemn completeness of man? Perhaps, in great capitals, young men of pleasure will answer, “It is youth; and we think what he says!” Young friends, I do not believe you.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31